Resistance to Bhasha dam

By Abbas Ali
Sunday, 07 Feb, 2010 | 12:47 AM PST |


PAKISTAN is currently facing acute shortage of water including reduced outflow of water from Tarbela Dam which is adversely affecting the agriculture sector. According to experts’ estimates, shortage during the Rabi crop could go up to 35 to 40 per cent.

People are already facing worst ever high prices of flour, rice and sugar which are the basic necessities of the population including 35 per cent extreme poor who can hardly afford to buy them. Experts say that in order to overcome the shortage of water the requirement is to build a Tarbela-type dam (world’s largest rock filled dam) after every seven years. But since 1976, the year Tarbela dam was built, Pakistan has not been able to construct even a single major dam due to political discord among the provinces over Kalabagh dam and lack of visionary leadership.

Musharaf regime opted to build Bhasha dam considering it less contentious than other five dams as part of ‘water vision 2025’, to overcome the issue of water and power shortage when its hope to seek consensus on Kalabagh Dam diminished. Diamer-Bhasha dam is designed to possess tremendous capacity to produce much needed electricity and provide water; it will have 12 power generating units with a capacity of 375 MW in a year and expected to produce 19,000 GWH. It will be the highest roller-compacted dam in the world with a height of 272 M.

Its gross capacity will be 7.3 million acre feet (MAF). It is located about 120 km downstream of its confluence with the Gilgit River in the Diamer District of Gilgit-Baltistan. The cost of the project is estimated to be over $12 billion. The dam could significantly help overcome power shortage and meet the long standing need for a water reservoir for irrigation purpose. Federal minister for water and power Raja Pervez Ashraf said on January 4 that “work on Diamer-Bhasha dam will begin this year and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had given assurance of financing the project”.

However, Bhasha dam, which was later named Diamer-Bhasha Dam to appease the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, is not free from contentions. It seems that the political elite who have been exploiting Pakistan for more than six decades are again going to make a big mistake and the dam may not be materialised.

The reason is that the regime has for long been ignoring and undermining the rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan simply because they have shown strong resistance to the proposed dam for it will submerge long tracks of scarce agricultural land in Diamer District where food security has already become a major issue. Secondly, it will displace more than 80,000 people of Gilgit-Baltistan and their future status has not yet been decided. And, there is no agreement yet on compensation plans. Thirdly, the adverse implications of the dam on socio-environmental conditions of Gilgit-Baltisatn have already been acknowledged internationally. Fourthly, the construction work would draw large numbers of outsiders to Gilgit-Baltistan while under the ‘state subject rule’ outsiders are not allowed to settle in the disputed regions. Fifthly, the proposed site of the dam, according to the experts, is located in the sensitive seismic zone, and any earthquake of the scale that struck Azad Kashmir in 2005 would be disastrous for the entire region.

The fundamental issues are location of the dam and rights of royalty. Construction of the dam will inundate and displace the people only in the Gilgit-Baltistan, while the power turbines are said to be located in the NWFP in the region of Kohistan, Bhasha. However, the ownership and boundary demarcation is disputed and the people of Gilgit-Baltisatn historically have a claim over Bhasha but the government of Pakistan’s unilateral declaration of Bhasha being part of the NWFP is igniting anger.

In the eyes of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan it is a conspiracy to deprive them of the royalty of the Dam. While water available from the reservoir on the one hand will inundate thousands of acres of land in Gilgit-Baltistan, it will, on the other hand, not provide water for a single acre in the region and all water will go downstream in Pakistan. Although it is announced that the royalty will be shared but the NWFP government has already decided not to share the amount of royalty with Gilgit-Baltistan.

The dam is fiercely opposed by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and the decision of Economic Coordination Council of Pakistan and recent announcement by Raja Pervez Ashraf to build the Bhash Dam has come as a shock to them. They have long standing reservations over the issue for they have been condemned to six decades of deprivations and alienations by the successive governments in Pakistan. People of the GB have no say in the affairs relating to governance of the region and have, therefore, raised the issue at international forums.

The World Bank has already declined to provide much needed funds and another major investor, China, has also reportedly refused to fund this dam. If the World Bank, which represents the western powers, and China, one of the most potential investors in Pakistan, are unwilling to fund the construction of the dam, it would be hard to find any other multilateral organisation willing to provide assistance. It seems the project will suffer the same fate as did the Kalabagh Dam.

There is a growing opposition to the dam at international level. India’s opposition is understandable for according to the UN the area of Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed region between Pakistan and India. But the federal minster for information and also Governor of the GB Mr Qamaruzzaman Kaira says that ‘not a single voice was raised by the people of the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) against this project (Diamer-Bhasha Dam)’, in response to a question of an activist of Gilgit-Baltistan.

If the government and the political elite of the country are serious about the dam, they must first decide the fate of Bhasha which historically belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan. This is the major hurdle in the way of the construction of the dam. If Bhasha goes to Gilgit-Baltistan the construction would become easier because it will automatically resolve the second major issue of dispute over royalty. The royalty then will go to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who would be uprooted because of the construction of the dam. Thirdly, government should chalk out a clear and transparent resettlement plan for the 80,000 displaced people, and compensation be arranged for the tracks of land which would be inundated.

If the political elite of Pakistan can appreciate concerns of the people, then the problems like these may not arise. What Pakistan needs is electricity and water. By solving the contentious issues of border demarcation, royalty, resettlement and compensation plan, regarding Diamer-Bhasha Dam and treating Gilgit-Baltistan with dignity which it deserves, Pakistan can overcome several problems.

Abbas Ali is Karachi based Social Researcher, origninaly from Gilgit-Baltistan. He could be reached at or


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